Description of Strategy
Large group teaching is considered one of the oldest forms of teaching (Cantillon, 2003). Beyond that, large group teaching does not have one precise definition on what it is because each individual may have their own interpretation of what constitutes a large class. For example, to some instructors, a large class could be around 50 students in comparison to the 20 students they are used to having. While some instructors consider large group teaching to be 200+ students. A great proportion of teaching is done through large group teaching in the form of didactic lectures (Luscombe & Montgomery, 2016). An efficient means of information delivery, didactic teaching encourages a teacher-centered and passive learning environment (Luscombe & Montgomery, 2016). However, didactic learning does not engage students in active learning tasks. Per Luscombe and Montgomery, active learning is a student-centered learning theory that focuses on the responsibility of learning on the learners. This essentially means that for the students to learn, they must do more than just listen in lectures. They must be engaged by doing things and thinking about the things that they are doing (Luscombe & Montgomery, 2016). To provide the best learning opportunity for students, teaching large groups should ideally incorporate strategies to promote active learning. Some examples of such strategies can be the use of Flipped Classroom and audience response systems. In addition to lecturing, a flipped classroom allows students to experience enhanced learning of course content through small group activities, class discussions and student presentations (Smith, 2017). This allows for the instructors to spend more time assisting their students through the learning process and engaging them in the content. While an audience response system or ARS, is a technology that allows students to respond electronically using a handheld piece of equipment such as clickers or TopHat (Efstathiou & Bailey, 2012). With the use of ARS instructors are able to present multiple choice or true/false questions to the class within their lectures.
Nevertheless, with any form of teaching there will be strengths and challenges that instructors will encounter. A few strengths that come with large group teaching is the independence of learning the student takes on. Large group teaching is cost effective in that one instructor can teach a large group instead of multiple small classes. Large group teaching has the potential to stimulate interest, explain concepts, provide that core knowledge, as well as direct student learning (Cantillon, 2003). However, large group teachings do come with their challenges as well that are not typically encountered when a smaller group of students is involved (Teaching and Learning Support Service, n.d.). The biggest challenge that seems to come from large group formats is the tendency to encourage passive learning (Cantillon, 2003). This gives the students little opportunity to more precisely process or critically evaluate the new knowledge. This then discourages student participation within the classroom due to decreased motivation.
In health professions education, large group teaching is best suitable in the pre-clinical years. Many of these programs have high student enrollment and the introduction of new concepts and information to all students in a timely manner often involves teaching them as a whole. PowerPoint lectures in large group teachings are held as being central to the students learning (Luscombe & Montgomery, 2016). In the pre-clinical years, students often do not have that confidence to speak up in front of their peers, therefore large group teaching environments allow an element of student pride (Luscombe & Montgomery, 2016).
Large group teaching has the potential to include a blended learning approach. Blended learning represents a combination of traditional face-to-face learning with the inclusion of online content and/or other activities supported by information and communication technology (Herbert, et al., 2017). Despite whether one uses pre-class videos, online assessments, e-Portfolios, or online tutorials, the motive of blended learning is to engage students and strengthen the learning process. Typically, large group sessions are in lecture form which makes learning impersonal, however with the shift to fully online courses the classes can be more student focused. In Herbert et al. (2017) study, the researchers implemented blended learning into a large introductory Pathology course which students found engaging and catering to a variety of learning approaches. They did this by developing highly engaging modules by incorporating excerpts from lectures recordings, along with PowerPoint slides containing animation and highlights (Herbert, et al., 2017). The modules had supplementary notes and links to additional sources of information such as videos and textbooks (Herbert, et al., 2017).
Large group teaching has been used in simulation learning through combined teaching strategies to connect classroom and clinical learning (Moyer, 2016). In Moyer’s article, the author describes developing a large group classroom simulation active learning strategy by being practical and combining common teaching and learning modalities (Moyer, 2016). Moyer’s teaching and learning strategies consist of unfolding case studies, low-fidelity simulation and PowerPoint. Unfolding case studies present a clinical scenario of a patient whose condition or disposition changes over time (Moyer, 2016). Using unfolding case studies can be designed to accommodate large groups of students and be useful for health professions education due to its flexibility and the individualization of specific concepts. Nevertheless, a cost-effective, low-resource type is needed for most colleges. Therefore, the use of low-fidelity simulation can be the most effective in promoting student learning (Moyer, 2016). Moyer’s last teaching and learning strategy is PowerPoint, an example of presentation software that uses projected slides to present visual and auditory content (Moyer, 2016). With the incorporation of alternate active learning strategies, educators can use PowerPoint to most efficiently improve classroom learning experiences.
In the next section, the authors present the strength, weakness, opportunities and threats of large group teaching as instructional strategy by using the SWOT analysis framework (Mind Tools, n.d.).
SWOT Analysis of Large Group Teaching
Relaxed environment, diverse opinions and associations
Large group teaching often creates a relaxed (less pressured) environment for learners since there is not increased pressure to perform individual activities (Ebrahim, 2020). Often activities are performed in groups where there is also opportunity to meet and associate with more peers (Teaching, 2020). The other aspect is value of diverse opinions that is possible in large classes.
Independence and group skills
The learning environment in large groups encourages students to be independent and motivated for self-directed learning as the one-on-one coaching is limited in large classes (Garrett-Hatfield, n.d.). There is also an opportunity to develop group skills since large classes often are organized for group works.
The same instructor can teach large number of students saving time and resources (Ebrahim, 2020). This may be particularly fitting in resource-constrained settings where reducing class size or increasing the teacher/student ratio may not be a feasible strategy (Nakabugo, Opolot-Okurut, Ssebbunga, Maani, & Byamugisha, 2008). Depending on the nature of the subject, large number of learners (e.g. from various distributed sites) can be taught remotely by a qualified professor who otherwise may not be available or affordable to teach smaller sections. In this context, large group teaching ensures all learners, regardless of geographic location, receive a similar experience.
Suitable for taking advantage of available audiovisual technologies
In the era of rapidly evolving educational technologies, instructional materials can be delivered to a large audience synchronously or asynchronously; the giving and receiving of formative feedback can be done in real-time in large classes using audience response system technologies, which then can be used to provide immediate feedback to learners and instructors or used as part of continuous assessment. In a way, large group teaching provides opportunities to utilize available educational technologies.
Decreased student participation
It is very easy to hide in a crowd and the same happens in large groups of learners. Particularly in large lecture settings common in the first year of health profession education courses, anonymity may decrease motivation and cause some students to not attend classes and resort to other methods of obtaining and learning the course materials and objectives.
For those that attend scheduled classes, some may not be vocal or participate because they may feel vulnerable or intimidated and fear judgement from the instructor or from their peers (Weaver & Qi, 2005). In both instances, students may be left with many incomplete concepts and unanswered questions.
In large group teaching, traditional lecture is the most common teaching method. In these teacher-centered settings, students are not usually challenged to engage, but rather are transmitted new information by the teacher. According to Lombardi (2019), students must be motivated and engaged in active learning for learning to occur. In addition, if students are not participating, they may be learning at a surface level and not maximizing opportunities for deeper learning.
Increased Student Diversity
Every learner will bring unique background knowledge and a level of expertise on a particular subject matter and learning is enhanced when students make connections between new concepts and pre-existing knowledge. Learning styles theory proposes that students have
optimal learning experiences when their learning style is in alignment with the teaching style (Bastable, 2008) while others suggest that everyone has learning preferences (Brown, et al., 2014). With large groups it is very difficult to evaluate every student’s background, pre-existing knowledge, learning level or preferred learning style and offer learning activities to cater to different levels and needs.
As groups increase in size there may also be more diversity in social, ethnic and cultural backgrounds which should be considered when providing examples and anecdotes during teaching sessions.
Decreased interaction between teacher and students
Ideally teachers should be available for students to reach out to for help, guidance and feedback. Even with office hours, these may be insufficient to accommodate the large number of students that require assistance. Communication through email or discussion boards may also be ineffective as teachers might be unable to respond to the volume of enquiries. In addition, if traditional lecture is the chosen teaching strategy, there is little to no opportunity for direct one on one interaction and attention.
This reduced quality and frequency of interaction between the teacher and individual students can also lead to reduced student motivation and overall learning outcomes. These concerns regarding large groups can be seen in testimonials given by students at the University of North Carolina (UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching & Learning, 2009, 3:18).
Opportunities exist to take advantage of large group teaching if proper teaching and learning activities are implemented. Although some studies (Harfitt & Tsui, 2015; Allais, 2013) argued that conditions for better teaching and learning occur in smaller classes, others did not necessarily saw such connections. According to a research report from Teaching and Educational Development Institute (2003), class size may not affect student performance rather the actions by the “university and lecturers” to support learning are more important than the size of the class. Simply reducing class size may not be an immediate fix to the perceived lack of “learning” in large groups (Flaherty, 2020). Whether it is in large or smaller classes, the selection of the instructional strategies and how they are implemented play greater role in facilitating learning than just increasing or reducing class sizes. The work from Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence (1992) as cited in Nakabugo et al. (2008) suggested three key strategies to enhance effectiveness in large group teaching: (a) creating small class atmosphere in large classes (e.g., learning students names, moving around in the room), (b) encouraging participation (e.g., by reorganizing classes into smaller groups, awarding participation), and (c) promoting active learning (e.g., giving a “think break”, being enthusiastic, following problem-solving approach to when designing the lesson. Applying these strategies may further expand the opportunities in using large group teaching as instructional strategy.
Large class teaching (in-person or online) can also be enhanced by applying simple “low risk” strategies that do not require additional investment in restructuring (Zheng, 2018). Some of these simple strategies Zheng suggested include “pausing and chunking” (i.e., dividing the lesson into smaller chunks), “effective questioning” (i.e., asking meaningful questions with wait time and follow-up questions), “physical movement” (i.e., moving around the room instead of standing behind the podium), and “using a skeleton handout” (i.e., skipping key points in the handout or slide so students actively listen to fill in the blank spaces). The Centre for Teaching and Learning (2018) at Western University as well as other studies (Kerr, 2011; Mulrayan-Kyne, 2010) also provide helpful tips on how to promote student engagement, manage logistical issues, integrate use of technology, etc. in large group teaching. Since large classes are becoming more common in higher education globally, institutions and instructors can exploit the best from this instructional approach by integrating various strategies to enhance the teaching and learning process.
Tendency for more large groups
People are more than ever pursuing post-secondary education as they aspire to obtain well-paying jobs and careers. Many people pursue multiple degrees or return to a postsecondary institution to further their education or expertise to advance their career. As population continues to grow and the needs of our communities change, more health professionals are required to meet these demands and more students are enrolled in health profession education programs. In Ontario, these demands have increased undergraduate enrolment close to fifty per cent over the past decade and limited budgets and resources available to institutions and faculty have resulted in increased class sizes to accommodate this increase in numbers (Kerr, 2011).
Negative Teacher evaluation
Students have expectations that they will gain new knowledge or acquire new skills and competencies at the end of a course or program. In some instances, their evaluations and grades are extremely important as they will be compared to that of their peers when applying for residencies or specialties in health education programs. As previously discussed, it is challenging for teachers to maintain the quality of student learning as group sizes increase and adapt methodologies to meet students’ needs. Students may be disappointed with their overall learning or poor grades in a course. As a result, teachers might receive negative feedback and evaluations from students which could put their positions and jobs at risk.
Time and fatigue
Overcoming the short-comings and challenges involved in teaching large groups requires an investment in time which may never be logistically feasible. This time commitment may be overwhelming and cause teacher fatigue or burn-out or may result in adopting less than ideal teaching strategies and resulting compromised learning outcomes.
Planning assessments and providing feedback for a large number of students requires much thought. The number of assessments and the type of assessments must be fair for students and adequately capture their learning success, and simultaneously not require an unreasonable time investment from teachers. Cheating can also be an issue in large groups. Because of the sheer volume of exams or assignments that need to be graded, it may be more difficult to identify cheating students (Wilsman, n.d.).
Standardization with support staff
Some teaching contexts in health professions education require large groups to be divided into smaller groups especially in simulation labs or clinics. In these instances, teachers will often rely on a team of teaching assistants or instructors to work with individual groups. They might be reinforcing core concepts, teaching hands-on techniques or procedures and even evaluating student performance. It can be challenging to have uniform standardization across all groups when these supporting team members may have different perspectives, levels of expertise, opinions or biases on what is being taught or evaluated. Despite implementing learning objectives, course objectives and grading rubrics, these may not be sufficient to eliminate inconsistencies between groups of the large whole.
Tales from the Field
In this section, the authors share descriptions of personal experiences in large group teaching and provide video links to some testimonials from students.
Testimonial of a Chiropractic student:
“When I was a student in chiropractic school, there were definitely pros and cons to learning in a large group setting. Pros – we could learn about different topics in a relatively short amount of time since information was shared with the entire class at the same time. Cons – there would rarely be enough time for the instructor to answer all questions from the audience and even less opportunity to have in depth discussions about the topic unless there was time set aside for this.” – Jessica Meneses, Toronto, Ontario
Personal encounter 1 – Large group facilitation at the University of Saskatchewan Health Sciences:
“Early in the 2020 winter term, I co-facilitated a large interprofessional class of about 300 undergraduate students from multiple health professions (Image 1). Historically, those sessions occurred in several small-group study rooms (40 to 50) with an assigned faculty tutor/facilitator for each. It was very challenging to find suitable rooms available at the same time and coordinate and standardize the large number of facilitators to ensure all learners in each of the small groups receive a similar interprofessional learning experience. In addition, cost was a big factor because each facilitator was paid. Despite the efforts to standardize tutors through training and orientation as well as provision of a detailed “tutor agenda” to help them guide the learning activity, student feedback consistently suggested that significant variations existed in the learning experience. For example, if students stated they had enjoyed the experience it was mostly because they encountered a ‘good’ group, or a ‘good’ facilitator/tutor and it was rarely because of the teaching strategy or resources used. As a solution to the logistical and cost related challenges as well as to minimize the gaps in the level of the actual learning experience between the small groups, we introduced a large classroom approach with an online learning platform to deliver the learning material and instructions. Learners were still being assigned to smaller groups of 3-4 but everyone was sharing the same room, facilitator(s), introductory presentation, etc. This approach gave learners more autonomy over the learning process, removed the challenge of recruiting a large number of tutors who were challenging to standardize, removed the need to book several small group study rooms and the associated workload on ICT services, etc. Although this approach is still new, early feedback from students was positive as students appreciated the autonomy, the flexibility to pace their group process, the opportunity to ask questions from professions not present in their own small group but present in the room etc. From the operational side, the new approach has saved considerable amount money and resources (e.g., time of ICT personnel, rooms now available for other use).”
“Therefore, in this example, large group teaching with small group setup provided a solution that improved the learning experience as well as saved financial and other resources. The lesson is that large group teaching, if implemented with other active learning promoting strategies (such as small-group activity, think-pair-share), can be a useful instructional strategy in specific circumstances.”
Personal encounter 2 – Observing a large undergraduate introductory nutrition class at the University of Saskatchewan:
“About five years ago, I observed a large undergraduate class of about 500 learners taking a basic human nutrition course in a large lecture theater. The instructor had a PowerPoint presentation (students had a copy too) and wore a microphone wire as she started lecturing right from the front of the lecture theatre. One of the strategies she used to increase learner engagement during the lecture was by providing a “skeleton slide” that only had headings and subheading but missing key points, so students needed to keep engaged in the lecture as they took notes to fill in the missing key points. The instructor also paused to ask questions every now and then. She was always writing on her monitor screen which was projected in real-time on the two large screens in the room, so students were able to clearly see the notes on each side of the screens. Although there was no small-group activity in the room, in a post-class conversation with the instructor, I learned that small groups (enough to accommodate about half of the class) were created for tutorial classes where Teaching Assistants helped facilitate the group activities. Students had the option to choose to participate in the small-group activities and earn some percent of their final grade, or they could opt only to write two mid-term and one final exam and not participate in the small-group activities. But those who chose to participate in the small-group activities only needed to write one mid-term exam and the final exam.
“I personally know this course instructor and she is experienced in teaching large classes and engaging learners despite the size of the room and number of students. It seemed the large group teaching in this case was a suitable strategy that saved the collage some money while still making the course accessible to learners from across campus. The instructor perhaps can consider integrating some small group activity in the actual large class and use an audience response system to further engage learners in giving and receiving feedback. The instructor could also consider moving around the room during the small group activity (example, when students complete a think-pair-share type activity).”
The following three videos show some students from the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and their opinions on large classes.
What Students Dislike about Large Classes (UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching & Learning, 2009, 3:18)
What students like about large classes (UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching & Learning, 2009, 3:44)
What Students Recommend About Large Classes (UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching & Learning, 2009, 3:57)
Allais, S. (2014). A critical perspective on large class teaching: the political economy of massification and the sociology of knowledge. Higher Education, 67, 721-734. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-013-9672-2
Bastable, S. B. (2008). Nurse as educator: Principles of teaching and learning for nursing practice (3rd ed.). Boston: Jones and Bartlett.
Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Chapter 6: Get Beyond Learning Styles. In Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Harvard University Press
Cantillon, P. (2003). Teaching large groups. BMJ, 326(7386), 437. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7386.437
Centre for Teaching and Learning. (2018, May 8). Teaching Large Classes. Western University. Retrieved from https://teaching.uwo.ca/teaching/engaging/large-class-teaching.html
Ebrahim, D. (2020, February 19). Advantages and disadvantages of teaching large classes. Retrieved from https://www.teflcourse.net/blog/advantages-and-disadvantages-of- teaching-large-classes/
Efstathiou, N., & Bailey, C. (2012). Promoting active learning using Audience Response System in large bioscience classes. Nurse Education Today, 32(1), 91-95.
Flaherty, C. (2020, June 18). Much Ado About Class Size. Inside Higher ED. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/06/18/study-some-things-matter-more- class-size-when-it-comes-student-success
Garrett-Hatfield, L. (n.d.). The Advantages & Disadvantages of Class Sizes. Education. Retrieved from https://education.seattlepi.com/advantages-disadvantages-class-sizes-3194.html
Harfitt, G.J. & Tsui, Amy B. M. (2015). An Examination of class size reduction on teaching and learning processes: a theoretical perspective. British Education Research Journal, 41(5), 845-865. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3165
Herbert, C., Velan, G.M., Pryor, W.M. & Kumar, R. K. (2017). A model for the use of blended learning in large group teaching sessions. BMC Med Educ, 17(197). DOI 10.1186/s12909- 017-1057-2
Kerr, A. (2011). Teaching and Learning in Large Classes at Ontario Universities: An Exploratory Study. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Available at http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Teaching%20and%20Learning%20in%2 0Large%20Classes%20ENG.pdf
Lombardi, P. (2019). Chapter 2: Surface and Deep Learning. In Instructional Methods, Strategies and Technologies to Meet the Needs of All Learners. Granite State College.
Mind Tools. (n.d.). SWOT Analysis: How to develop a strategy for success. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_05.htm
Moyer, Susan. (2016). Large Group Simulation: Using Combined Teaching Strategies to Connect Classroom and Clinical Learning. Teaching and Learning in Nursing. 10.1016/j.teln.2016.01.002.
Luscombe, C., Montgomery, J. (2016). Exploring medical student learning in the large group teaching environment: examining current practice to inform curricular development. BMC Med Educ, 16(184). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-016-0698-x
Mulrayan-Kyne, C. (2010). Teaching large classes at college and university level: Challenges and opportunities. Teaching in Higher Education, 15(2), 175-185. DOI: 10.1080/13562511003620001
Nakabugo, M.G., Opolot-Okurut, C., Ssebbunga, C.M., Maani, J.S. & Byamugisha, A. (2008). Large Class Teaching in Resource-Constrained Contexts: Lessons from Reflective Research in Ugandan Primary Schools. Journal of International Cooperation in Education, CICE Hiroshima University, 11(3), 85-102. DOI: 10.15027/34312
Smith, C. (2017). The flipped classroom: Benefits of student-led learning. Nursing, 47(4), 20-22.
Teaching. (2020, January 14). Large group teaching. UNSW. Retrieved from https://teaching.unsw.edu.au/large-group-teaching
Teaching and Educational Development Institute. (2003). Teaching Large Classes Project 2001: Final Report. University of Queensland: Australia. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292615752_Teaching_Large_Classes_Project 2001_Final_Report
Teaching and Learning Support Service, University of Ottawa. Pedagogy Video Series: Large Classes
UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching & Learning. (2009, December 4). What Students Dislike about Large Classes [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfdEFaeqzo
UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching & Learning. (2009, December 4). What Students Recommend about Large Classes [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUK_xMvXTLk
UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching & Learning. (2009, December 4). What Students Like about Large Classes [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00Eg0sZQORw
Weaver, R. R., & Qi, J. (2005). Classroom organization and participation: College students’ perceptions. Journal of Higher Education, 76(5), 570-601. DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2005.11772299
Wilsman, A. (n.d.). Teaching Large Classes. Vanderbilt University – Center for Teaching. Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/teaching- large-classes/
Zheng, M.S. (2018). Low-Risk Strategies to Promote Active Learning in Large Classes. The Teaching Professor. Retrieved on October 18, 2020 from https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/teaching-strategies/active-learning/low- risk-strategies-promote-active-learning-large-classes/